L. J. Curtis - 12 December 1992

'm very honored to be named a Distinguished University Professor, and I'm delighted for this opportunity to address our graduating class.

However, I'd like to speak to you today, not as a Physics Professor, but rather as a fellow alumnus. I feel much in common with those who are receiving degrees today. I can well recall my own feelings when I sat, almost where you are now. I was happy to be getting my degree, but I was sad to be leaving my friends, and I was apprehensive about the future. All this I remember vividly, but, to place my role here today in context, I must confess: I can't recall who gave Commencement Address, and I certainly don't recall anything that was said.

A lot of nice things have happened to me since my Commencement. I'd like recount for you one example, that occurred exactly 13 years after my graduation. I had been invited by the President of Stockholm University to supervise the Examination of a Swedish Doctoral Candidate. I can recall my thoughts at that time; I was addressing the faculty in an elegant Grand Hall in Stockholm; I was dressed in white tie and tails; I was speaking entirely in Swedish; and I was describing some fascinating new research developments. It was an exhilarating examination: That particular Doctoral Candidate is now the Vice Chair of Physics in the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and he supervises the selection and awarding of the Nobel Prizes. But I remember thinking to myself as I stood there: "How did a kid from Libbey High School get into this place?"

If any of my high school classmates are here today, they can tell you: this wasn't the direction I was headed when I graduated from High School. My scientific career has not been a case of early childhood selection. I had little interest in Math and Science in High School, and I had no specific career objectives when I entered the University of Toledo. With this unlikely start, is it possible that I did, somehow, prepare for the unforeseen events that subsequently occurred? My answer to you is yes - I prepared by attending the University of Toledo. Since we share this, I'd like to give you my perspective.

First, let me state that, by any measure, I received a superb undergraduate education here. In graduate school, that education gave me a significant advantage over the other students. The competition then was very strong - after my first year, half the students in my classes had failed out! Many of these students came from very prestigious Universities, and many were very bright, but I had the advantage of a truly rigorous undergraduate preparation. Toledoans are sometimes surprised when I tell them this.

As an undergraduate I was a student in an exceptionally strong Engineering Physics Program. It existed because of the efforts of a man named John Turin. Dr. Turin later became Dean of the Graduate School, and had earlier served on a committee that ran the entire University during the illness of a former President. He died in 1973, but his legacy remains today.

UT's strong Academic Programs have been called "Toledo's Best Kept Secret." Typically, I simply stumbled into this program. Nobody outside the University recommended it to me. But there I was pushed hard, not only by my Professors, but also by the other students. The best students in my classes here were as bright as any that I have encountered since. That is still true of the students in the classes I teach today. The University should be commended for vigorously seeking to attract National Merit Scholars and other top students. Competition stretches us all - it improves our teaching, and it permits students at all levels to judge their own talents against National Norms. If you have kept pace with the best students in your classes here, you'll do well anywhere.

Research also played a significant role in my undergraduate education. At the University of Toledo we have never separated our research faculty from our teaching faculty. Smaller universities often lack the critical mass to mount research programs. Larger Universities often have certain faculty members who primarily teach, and others who primarily do research. Toledo has an ideal size. Here, many do both. In this regard, our graduate and our undergraduate programs strengthen each other. As a student I profited greatly from this mix of teaching and research. I was excited by the fact that my Professors were also contributing to the knowledge of their fields, and I enjoyed the enthusiasm that research brought to their teaching.

I participated in many research activities here as an undergraduate. For example, I worked with Ed Foster to design and construct a subcritical nuclear reactor, with funds we obtained from the Atomic Energy Commission. John Turin got me a summer job at the Surface Combustion Corporation where he consulted. Together we developed and prototyped a new type of Pelletizing Furnace to concentrate Taconite ores at the mining site. I also worked with Earl Hays on problems in oceanography.

This undergraduate interest in Oceanography culminated later, when Earl Hays arranged for me to work at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. There I constructed a new type of hydrophone array. I was able to take my array out to sea, and to use it to study the ocean floor by continuous seismic profiling. I recall how we streamed my hydrophones on long cables behind the ship. Schools of dolphins followed the ship, and they liked to swim with my hydrophones. If I sent out a ping, the dolphins responded to me with coos, and squeaks, and clicks. During the long weeks at sea, I had plenty of time to converse with the dolphins, while I was alone on the night watch. It was with sadness that I pinged my last goodbye to my dolphin friends, when we left to return to home port.

We still place great emphasis on involving undergraduates in front line research here. This year we received a $130 000 grant from the National Science Foundation to support "Research Experiences for Undergraduates. " We were one of 20 sites in the Nation to be awarded such a grant (we were the only such site in Ohio). These experiences can provide students with many new insights, and options they did not have when they entered the University.

My PhD is from the University of Michigan. It's a very good school. But if I had chosen the University of Michigan as my undergraduate institution, I would never have been drawn into Physics the way I was at Toledo. If, like ''Back to the Future,'' I could go back to High School now, and change my decision to attend the University of Toledo, my entire life would change. Nothing that President Horton described would have happened.

Similarly, my research career would also have been totally different if I were a Professor at some other University. Toledo has provided me with the freedom, security, and opportunity to explore the research and teaching that I want to do. I was granted Sabbaticals, Unpaid Research Leaves, and many other opportunities that have permitted me to follow my own curiosity. And, I've been able to share these experiences with my students here. John Turin promised me that if I accepted a Professorship at the University of Toledo, I could still see the world. Those who have followed him have kept the promises he made to me.

But, as you know, the University provides opportunities, but it is you who must provide the hard work. The degrees you will be awarded today have demanded sacrifices. Sacrifices not only by you, but also by your families, many of whom are here today. Unfortunately the hard work doesn't stop here. One set of skills will not last you a lifetime. Many of you will now enter new and unfamiliar situations. The most important skill that you take with you today is the skill of learning.

But my generation does have at least one element of wisdom that I think is worth passing on to you. Our parents and grandparents lived through two World Wars and the Great Depression. Regardless of where we grew up, we all learned from them the same lesson, and that is : "There is only one thing that they can't take away from you, and that is what is in your head."

Some people are predicting bad things for the future. They say that yours will be "the first generation that does not have things better than your parents did." Well, perhaps we're just in the process of redefining success - different isn't necessarily worse. But if you accept the premise that your future is predestined, then you may not try as hard as your parents did, and this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

You can increase your options - you do so by investing in your own talents. To paraphrase Ben Hogan, "It's all a matter of luck - and the more you practice, the luckier you get." You can't always get what you want - but if you choose your options carefully, you can wind up wanting what it is you get. The future is always uncertain: You may be lucky enough to live in the best of times; you may be unlucky enough to live in the worst of times; but these are the only times you've got to choose from! You're born when you're born, that's just the luck of the draw.

I was charmed by the last Dr. Seuss book, by the late Theodor Geisel. It's a little Commencement Address for children entitled "Oh the places you'll go!" I told you earlier where I went, 13 years after my graduation - I wonder where you will be, 13 years from now. That puts us in the year 2005 - it could be very exciting, if you do it right!

You have received an education here that is as good as you wanted to make it. My advice to you is: Don't be afraid to stretch yourself to reach high goals. It's disappointing to fail, but it helps you to define your own limits, and it enhances the joy you feel when you exceed your own expectations. Don't be restricted by the narrow visions of other people around you - instead, measure yourself against external standards. And, most importantly - do what you want to do. You may be surprised to find that your education here has prepared you to succeed to a much greater degree than you now realize.

I'd like to close with some thoughts that I first read as an undergraduate. They date back almost 200 years to the writings of a man named Stephen Grellet (born Étienne de Grellet du Mabillier). He wrote:

Thank you for being our students. We hope that this University has provided you with much that you will come to value. We also hope that our future stewardship of your Alma Mater will make both you and me rightfully proud to be graduates of it.

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